Time will tell how the East Greenwich Town Council’s cost-cutting crusade will affect future budgets. The full financial picture won’t be clear until the mounting pile of lawsuits are sorted out years from now, and homeowners learn if an antagonistic campaign to shrink local government in an upscale suburb known for good schools and nice neighbors lowers property values more than tax rates.
In the short term, the Town Council’s assault on its fire department and the school district has been a boon to the lawyers involved.
“Since I’ve been in office I’ve never seen legal bills like this,” said Town Councilor Mark Schwager at a meeting last night.
In addition to its $132,000 a year town solicitor, East Greenwich also spent $104,518 with Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder & Siket since Gayle Corrigan became town manager in June to help with legal disputes with the fire department and school department, and to work on a new social media policy for employees. Town Council President Sue Cienki, a close ally of Corrigan’s, said it’s normal for municipalities to work with more than one attorney.
But last week the town’s litigious approach cost taxpayers an additional $10,000 in legal fees to labor lawyer Liz Wiens.
Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl awarded $41,905 to Wiens for exposing, through the Jim Perry v. EG lawsuit, five willful and knowing violations of the state Open Meetings Act. In a December email to EG’s attorney Dave D’Agonstino, Wiens offered to settle for $32,269. D’Agostino declined the offer and decided to instead to argue over Wiens’ legal fees in court. Judge McGuirl didn’t like that decision, and awarded Wiens the amount she told D’Agostino she would seek if East Greenwich didn’t agree to the lower amount.
“The Court is, again, disappointed with the Town,” McGuirl said, according to a transcript of the court proceeding. “I have to say this is the first case I’ve had for attorney’s fees that the parties have not been able to work out. That has not happened.”
D’Agostino’s argument against Wiens’ legal fees was a “disserving to the Court,” McGuirl said. She chided him for being unprepared. “Quite frankly, you should have been better prepared for this argument,” she said. “You’ve had months to prepare this.”
She indicated East Greenwich should consider itself fortunate she didn’t assess higher legal fees.
“Actually, if you look at the case law, I could actually impose or award her additional funding based on
the uniqueness of the case, and what I consider the importance of the case and the work that was put into
this,” McGuirl said. “Because it is the Town involved in it and taxpayers, I am not inclined to do that, but I am going to award her what I consider reasonable fees for the extraordinary work and effort she put into this case. I think the $300 hourly rate is reasonable.”
Wiens, an East Greenwich resident, said some of her earnings will be reinvested in the community.
“I will definitely be working towards replacing this Council in any way that I can,” she told me, “including contributing money and knocking on doors.”